Nourishing the Community

by Brad Jones

As a theoretical concept, craft has long been associated with the production of utilitarian objects with domestic intent (Metcalf 1993). Furniture, textiles, pottery, and metalwork are all frequently classified as such. But despite being innately utilitarian and implicitly domestic, food is rarely designated as such. What then makes “craft” and “artisanal” foods artisanal?[1] Is it the small-batch mode of production, the hands-on approach of passionate people, the respect for the raw material, or the mentality of its making? Is it some combination of all the above.

Moreover, what makes the artisanal approach to food particularly attractive to the producers themselves? Why are well educated individuals leaving careers in high-paying and well-respected industries to become manual laborers? Who is taking part in this movement and who stands to benefit from its success? How does craft production propose itself to be more than an anachronistic way of thinking and doing?[2]

In an attempt to answer some of these questions, I turn the microscope on a Somerville MA based culinary incubator. Kitchen Inc. serves as a hub of culinary craftsmanship and offers itself as a convenient and transparent window into the world of artisanal food production.  Because craft production is often (although not necessarily) small scale, and small business start-up costs are high, nascent producers of artisanal comestibles have faced significant barriers.

One means of successfully navigating these barriers has been through the development of locally based incubator kitchens: organizations that provide an important economic buttress by reducing upfront capital costs associated with owning property and buying equipment. In addition, they often offer support services such as entrepreneurial classes as well as assistance in getting the certifications necessary to produce food intended for sale.  Perhaps most importantly however, I argue that these incubators act as a supportive community space in which individuals can network, socialize, share ideas, and quite literally collaborate.

This article is discusses two of the five culinary entrepreneurs operating out of Kitchen Inc., Black Magic Coffee and Union Square Donuts. These businesses offer a spectrum of artisanship: a barista with a hand-crafted mobile coffee cart who sources their product exclusively from small batch roasters, and a chef-instructor who makes handmade gourmet donuts. I argue that Kitchen Inc has simultaneously helped to reinvigorate the local community and has provided a breeding ground for engaged, passionate, and community focused culinary craftsman and entrepreneurs.
Black Magic

Black Magic Coffee is one of the most recent additions to the Kitchen Inc. family. David, the owner and operator, has created a small café on wheels. He drives this mobile coffee cart to catered events and to public markets and pulls espresso beverages for a “more discerning” audience. David is a former occupational therapist who says he took an interest the art of making coffee a few years after his wife bought him a small home espresso machine. He decided to follow his passion into the industry, took a managerial position at a local café, and began perfecting his craft. However, it wasn’t until he was laid off from that job that he decided to take the plunge into entrepreneurship.

It quickly becomes clear that David’s appreciation for the quality and variability of raw materials is an essential element of his craft. In Cheese Chronicles, Liz Thorpe notes that “Artisan cheesemakers change their recipe, and their cheesemaking technique, to accommodate the shifting fluid medium that is milk. Commodity cheesemakers take all possible steps to forcibly create a consistent fluid medium that can be made into a consistent final product, without modifying their approach” (Thorpe 2009; 135).

The characteristics and quality of raw milk changes from season to season, even from day to day. It is the relationship the cheesemaker has with this variability that Thorpe suggests distinguishes the artisan from the producer of commodity cheese. If we are to accept Thorpe’s definition, an artisanal product expresses variability rather than standardizes it; artisans work with their mediums rather than against them. David discussed his own artisanal approach as, “experimental by nature. [Coffee] tastes differently every day that goes by and is prepared differently. Even a shot of espresso is different, different temperatures, different doses. It’s highly experimental. You have to be open to that. You can’t be a rigid person and work in coffee. You have to be open to variability. That’s coffee. It changes, it’s a seasonal product. You have to learn to work with it.”

I’m not sure that even David was aware, in his discussion of coffee, just how profoundly his comments articulated the concept of craft production. David Pye, a former professor at the Royal College of Art in London, makes a case that the distinction between craft and commodity production lies in workmanship—whether the production is an expression of a “workmanship of risk” or a “workmanship of certainty.” Pye claims that craftsmanship simply means, “workmanship using any kind of technique or apparatus, in which the quality of the result is not predetermined, but depends on the judgment, dexterity, and care which the maker exercises as he works” (Adamson 2010, 342). David would most certainly agree. But he would include raw material in the equation of workmanship as well. A barista and by extension an espresso drink, is only as good as the materials he works with. “You can make bad coffee out of really good beans,” he says, “but you can never make really good coffee out of bad ones.”

The raw materials are important for practical but also social dimensions. Certain roasteries are better not just because their beans taste better but because David has built personal relationships with the roasters themselves. He not only sources from various small-batch roasters throughout the country whom he considers to be doing the most interesting things with raw coffee, but also those with whom he shares a reciprocal personal interest.

In many ways it seems, the variables that primarily determine product worth based on the logic of rational neoliberalism (cost, quantity, profit, convenience) are being forgone for more sentimental aspects such as affection, social relationships, and moral certitude (Guthman 2008). Although culinary craftsman are making tangible objects with utilitarian intents, they are at the same time crafting community, nurturing relationships, and encouraging collective sensibilities.  The physical objects themselves are less a marker of Bourdieuian social status and more a vital component of a Maussian gift economy.

David’s coffee cart then provides insight into an affective component of the artisanal economy.[3] It’s not coincidental that the cart allows David to interact directly with his consumers. This interaction is a vital component of what makes his position of production rewarding. David noted, “I wouldn’t enjoy it if there wasn’t any human interaction. That would be a real loss, and it wouldn’t be of any interest to me.”

The romantic image of reclusive craftsmen quietly laboring in their shops, contently whistling while they work, must be replaced with a new narrative of sociability and the creation of personal relationships and affective ties. David is proud to offer his espresso beverages to appreciative clientele. Without that dialogue, both verbal and sentimental, it would neither be rewarding nor sustainable work.

Modern Homemade/Union Sq. Donuts

Modern Homemade came to Kitchen Inc when Heather, an accomplished pastry chef, had the idea of teach workshops on the principles of home economics in a modern way. She wanted to hold classes on sewing, cooking, canning, head to tail butchery, and even on balancing checkbooks; to teach things no longer offered in schools, but that are, Heather says, “skills that people need to know in order to live their lives.”

The narrative of knowledge lost fits into a more expansive saga of “deskilling.” Marx claimed that deskillment was a direct consequence of industrialization as the machine increasingly took over tasks formerly performed by man. Harry Braverman later went on to make the case that this degradation of work inspires an insidious form of alienation in which laborers are not only separated from the fruits of their labor but are distanced from the very skills necessary to autonomously produce. Heather’s comment suggests that recovering these skills is potentially “empowering,” capable of inspiring a fundamental measure of self-reliance. In his book Shopclass for Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford writes, “…we are led to consider how the specifically human manner of being is lit up, as it were, by man’s interaction with his world through his hands. For this a new sort of anthropology is called for, one that is adequate to our experience of agency. Such an account might illuminate the appeal of manual work in a way that is neither romantic nor nostalgic, but rather simply gives credit to the practice of building things, fixing things, and routinely tending to things, as an element of human flourishing.” (2010; 64)

Crawford’s “new sort of anthropology” (or should I say “sort of “ anthropology) towards the fountainhead of human flourishing might reasonably be amended to include not just the building, fixing, and tending of things but also the growing, baking, brewing, and making of them as well.

In the span of time that I conducted interviews at Kitchen Inc. Heather had shifted her focus from teaching modern day home-ec to the production of artisanal donuts. Making a short story shorter, another tenet, Josh, approached Heather with the idea. Within two weeks she had developed the recipe for her dough and two weeks after that they we’re selling donuts out of the front retail space of Kitchen Inc. The instrumentality of incubator itself in this whole process cannot be overemphasized.

Kitchen Inc. provided an environment for the like-minded Josh and Heather to meet and to build a relationship of mutual trust strong enough to go into business together almost overnight. Moreover, the open (physical and bureaucratic) structure of Kitchen Inc allowed a good idea to become a successful business in the amount of time it takes most businesses to fill out the first round of paper work. Finally, it is clear that the shared production space encourages creative dialogue and facilitates collaboration amongst artisans.

Turning an idea into the reality of small business ownership, no matter what structures assist in its operation and development, does not come about without a great deal of effort. Heather indicated that she works excruciating long days at an exhausting pace; most often from 4:30 in the morning until 7 at night. While to the objective outsider it may seem like a great deal of toil for a rather nominal reward (Heather noted that she ‘isn’t exactly raking in the dough’) it does not subjectively feel that way to Heather. “We have so much fun making donuts, I wouldn’t want anything else. I don’t care that I work 16 hour days, every single day of the week. I don’t care! Because it’s so much fun, and they make me so happy, and hopefully they make other people happy!”

Heather echoes an oft-repeated sentiment when speaking with artisanal producers—that their work is a labor of love. One consistently finds that these craftsmen and women have blurred the distinction between labor and leisure merging one almost seamlessly into the other.

Heather’s commitment to making a handmade product despite the processes inefficiencies and time requirements is reinforced by more than just love. There’s a social component to it as well. In the same way it was important to David that he interact with his customers, it’s important to Heather that she’s becoming part of the greater community. She reflected, “The other day I was walking and it just felt so good, because everybody knows one another, it’s a beautiful day, the sun was out, and they’re like oh hey, what’s going on, how are the donuts. People know me as the donut lady, I’ve been called that a few times and I’m like… alright. They see me and they think donuts, and are really friendly and excited and they’re asking me how it’s going. It’s this really great community. It feels really good…that was a good day.”

Heather’s recollection of a “good day” in recent memory shows how intricately her wellbeing is stitched into her businesses and its relationship with the community. It is, after all, called “Union Square” Donuts and it represents a vital association with and sense of place. Lovingly referred to as the “donut lady,” Heather’s hand-crafted product has become an important stitch in the fabric of her professional and social identity. Her sense of nourishing the community (effectively and affectively) lends credence to a way of thinking and doing seemingly all but anachronistic in the contemporary American economy and culture.

Conclusion      

What Black Magic Coffee and Union Square Donuts share is not only a common genesis in Kitchen Inc., but a tangible sense craftsmanship and an operating ethos of community engagement. This article uses Kitchen Inc. as a convenient forum to hold a discussion on the concept of culinary craftsmanship. Moreover, the craftspeople themselves demonstrate the creative and at times unexpected ways in which a distinct grassroots food system is in the process of being developed. The logic of industrial capitalism no longer holds In alternative provisioning communities such as Kitchen Inc. Things are not better simply because they’re cheaper, or because they’re easier. Quality is now being determined by a new metric, one that is attentive to the spirit of community, to engaged labor, and to relationships of affect.

The stories of the culinary artisans of Kitchen Inc aren’t offered here because they’re unique but rather because I think they’re quite common. What we find are artists and craftsmen, working with differing mediums, whether the medium is milk or distilled spirits, canvas or clay. Craft objects offer themselves as a convenient lens into contemporary perceptions of the economy, the environment, and society more generally. In doing so, they reveal how a grassroots (and potentially more sustainable) provisioning system is in the process of development, not from statutes of legislatures, but in the hands of artisanally-minded individuals taking part in daily acts of living.

Note: Since the time this research was conducted Heather has opened her own brick and mortar storefront a few blocks down from Kitchen Inc.

 

Brad Jones is completing graduate studies in gastronomy at Boston University where he researches sociocultural aspects of food production and is the founding editor of the Graduate Journal of Food Studies. Along with colleague Chris Maggiolo, he is the co-founder of to cure: a food anthology which features a behind-the-scenes look at artisanal food production in America. You can follow their 15,000 mile journey across the America culinary landscape at www.tocurefood.comHe would like to thank Dr. Heather Paxson for inspiration on the topic and for her constant support.

 

Works Cited:

Adamson, Glenn. Ed. 2010. The Craft Reader. New York: Berg Publishing.

Crawford, Matthew. 2010. Shopclass as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work. New York: Penguin Books.

Guthman, Julie.2008. “Neoliberalism and the Making of Food Politics in California,” Geoforum 39(3): 1171-1183

Hardt, Michael and Negri Antonio. 2000. Empire. Cambridge; Harvard University Press

Markowitz, Sally J. 1994. “The Distinction Between Art and Craft.” In Journal of Aesthetic Education 28(1): 55-70.

Metcalf, Bruce. 1993. “Replacing the Myth of Modernism.” In American Craft 53 (1)

Paxson, Heather. 2010. “Cheese Cultures: Transforming American Tastes and Traditions.” In GastronomicaThe Journal of Food and Culture 10 (4): 35-44

Thorpe, Liz. 2009. The Cheese Chronicles. New York: Harper Collins.



[1] The terms “Craft” and “Artisanal” will be used interchangeably throughout. I do not intend to suggest that their meanings are exact and am aware that historically they have been defined and valued independently from one another. Nevertheless, in contemporary culinary usage the words are essentially synonymous. (see Markowitz 1994 and Paxson 2010).

[2] Anachronistic here indicates a sense of temporal displacement from the foundational principles of “modernity”— positivism and progress. It is these principles that have led us to the efficient factory and the rationalized division of labor. Thinking teleologically in terms of this pervading logic. Hands-on and traditional production practices are a seemingly irrational step backward. I hope to discover why these artisanal food producers implicitly disagree.

[3] For more on immaterial labor and the production of affect see Hardt and Negri 2000.

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